May 20, 1862: Lincoln signs Homestead Act
On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, which opens government-owned land to small family farmers (“homesteaders”). The act gave “any person” who was the head of a family 160 acres to try his hand at farming for five years. The individual had to be at least 21 years old and was required to build a house on the property. Farmers were also offered an alternative to the five-year homesteading plan. They could opt to buy the 160 acres after only 6 months at the reasonable rate of $1.25 an acre. Many homesteaders could not handle the hardships of frontier life and gave up before completing five years of farming. If a homesteader quit or failed to make a go of farming, his or her land reverted back to the government and was offered to the public again. Ultimately, these lands often ended up as government property or in the hands of land speculators. If, after five years, the farmer could prove his (or her) homestead successful, then he paid an $18 filing fee for a “proved” certificate and received a deed to the land.
Before the Civil War, similar acts had been proposed in 1852, 1854 and 1859, but were defeated by a powerful southern lobby that feared new territories populated by homesteaders would be allowed into the Union as “free states,” thereby giving more power to the abolitionist movement. In addition, many in the northern manufacturing industries feared the Homestead Act would draw large numbers of their labor force away and into farming. In 1860, President James Buchanan vetoed an earlier homestead bill, succumbing to pressure from southern slave-holding interests. With the Civil War raging and southern slave-owning states out of the legislative picture in Washington D.C., Lincoln and pro-western expansion Republicans saw an opportunity to pass a law that opened the West to settlement.
By the end of the Civil War in 1864, 15,000 people had homestead claims in territories that now make up the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and Colorado. Though some of these people were genuinely looking to begin a new life as a western farmer, others abused the program. Much of the land offered by the government was purchased by individuals acting as a “front” for land speculators who sought access to the vast untapped mining, timber and water resources of the West. The speculator would offer to pay individuals cash or a share of profits in return for submitting a Homestead Act claim. By 1900, settlers, legitimate or otherwise, had gobbled up 80 million acres of land through the Homestead Act. To make way for the homesteaders, the federal government forced Native American tribes off of their ancestral lands and onto reservations.
The first Homestead Act claim was filed by a civil war veteran and doctor named Daniel Freeman on January 1, 1863. Although the act was officially repealed by Congress in 1976, one last title for 80 acres in Alaska was given to Kenneth Deardorff in 1979.